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'The U.S. and South Asia after 2014'
27 December 2012

U.S. policy towards South Asia stands at a critical juncture on the eve of its military drawdown in Afghanistan. And in the midst of regular debates and deliberations on the nature of U.S. engagement in the region post 2014 and its implications for South Asia, Observation Research Foundation in partnership with Asia Society organised a discussion on ’The U.S. and South Asia after 2014’ in New Delhi on December 20, 2012.

The discussion was preceded by a brief presentation of Asia Society’s newly launched report ’The United States and South Asia after Afghanistan’ by Dr. Alexander Evans, the author of the report and currently Bernard Schwartz Fellow at Asia Society. The panel discussion included participation of Dr. Evans himself, Mr. Kanwal Sibal, former Foreign Secretary of India and Dr. Manoj Joshi, Comment Editor at the Mail Today. The proceedings were moderated by Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Head, Strategic Studies and Distinguished Fellow, ORF.

Dr. Evans initially dwelt on the methodology of the report. In preparing the report, a whole range of declassified documents were consulted, and a series of over 90 interviews were conducted between August and early November 2012. The interviews were primarily based on some key questions regarding the strategic quotient in U.S. South Asia policy in the past and in the days to come, the influence and integration of expertise into policymaking, and the evolution of U.S. South Asia policy over time and across successive administrations. The report also focuses on the machinery of government that can either facilitate or obscure connections between policy communities.

If U.S. South Asia policy during the Cold War suffered from too little attention, then presently the problem seems to be one of too much attention and too much attention, according to Evans, can lead to silos in government policymaking. Laying out and illustrating various policy communities in the United States that have a South Asia focus, he argued that that these communities, although, connected to each other, are neither coherent nor integrated to the degree desired. Evans then elaborated on how the U.S. missed two opportunities in the past to forge a strategic South Asia policy and argued that 2013 presents a similar opportunity.

In Obama’s second term, people dealing with South Asia both at the official and the political sense are going to change in coming months. But, 2013 is an opportunity not because of the possible personnel changes but because no single super priority is likely to dominate thinking about the region. After a decade spent dealing mostly with counterterrorism and Afghanistan, the new Obama administration, according to Evans, has an opportunity to step back and think about its interests in Asia as a whole in a much more integrated context.

Evans, further, delineated the report’s seven recommendations that essentially look at how the U.S. policy towards South Asia can better reflect changing geo-political dynamics that necessitates greater recognition of the region’s increased importance in U.S. policy towards Asia at large that, in turn, calls for improved personnel capacity, and greater coordination and integration at policymaking levels. He concluded by expressing his concern that the scale of infrastructure devoted to the Indian Foreign Policy establishment was commensurate neither with India’s own global aspirations nor with the ambitions embedded in the India-U.S. partnership.

Given the nature of the relationships that the U.S. has with countries in the region, the issues involved, the problems that need to be addressed, and interests that are mis-aligned, Ambassador Kanwal Sibal was skeptical regarding the prospects of the United States developing a coherent strategy that integrated South Asia and East Asia at the policy level. Reflecting on the importance given to China in making a South Asia policy, Sibal opined that America’s and India’s views do not converge regarding China’s role in the region.

Sibal then went about dissecting the complexity of developing an integrated U.S. Asia policy, given the difficult India-China relationship. The US military capability on the ground to stabilize countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan does not generate much confidence. Recounting the ups and downs of India-U.S. relationship, he discussed how things began to change significantly as a result of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The early years of President Obama, though, showed no signs of a coherent long-term strategy. But views soon evolved and Obama’s policies became much more compatible to India’s concerns. Sibal questioned the utility of America’s overextended patience with Pakistan. India and the U.S., according to him, should primarily focus and build on the bilateral, which in turn, will build momentum for greater convergence on the global arena where some differences will remain on issues like military interventions and responsibility to protect.

To conclude, he emphasized the significance of India’s strategic autonomy amidst the strengthening of India-U.S. relationship, which, according to him, means that India will support the U.S. where strategic interests converge and where they do not, India won’t outrightly stand in America’s way but then again, the U.S. should not expect India to be on its side either.

Dr. Manoj Joshi began by pointing out the need to locate the report in the larger context of the diffusion of power to new states and non-state actors and the shift of power towards Asia. While focusing on how to integrate South Asia into the larger U.S. Asian strategy, the report, according to him, enunciates three key issues, viz. the question of processes to improve United States policy; the issue of Afghanistan, and the need for a more integrated South Asia policy.

During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union made considerable efforts to have a united South Asia policy. In this context, the developments now in a certain sense is a continuity of the same, and the present challenge is to deal with Afghanistan and yet keep India and Pakistan together in a common policy framework, amidst persisting problems.

Highlighting the issue of asymmetry in the India-U.S. equation, he discussed the challenges of partnership between India that focuses more inwards and the U.S. that looks at issues in a more global framework. Despite obvious commonalities, India and the U.S., according to him, operates on parallel lines of policies expressed in terms of history and internal structures. He emphasized the need to have clearer ideas of what each side expects from a good India-U.S. relationship and stressed that institutions like the ORF have a major role to play in this regard.

Though it may be wrong to call India and the U.S. as natural allies, they are very close to being one. The two countries, according to Joshi, do not have any outstanding areas of difficulties, and as India expands its horizons of strategic policymaking, the U.S. and its policy and perspective will be extremely useful for India.

The Q&A session saw active participation from the Indian strategic community, representatives of foreign missions in India, and from the ORF faculty. Over 70 strong invitees catalyzed another invigorating round of discussion on the findings and recommendations of the report. Dr. C. Raja Mohan who closed the proceedings highlighted the impact that the rise of China and India will have on the trans-Indus territory. He noted that the U.S. is at a critical juncture when it needs to balance its resources and objectives and hence, how the U.S. manages its role in the world will be crucial for all.

(This report is prepared by Monish Tourangbam, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)